When superheroes first became a fixture on the big screen, they were saddled with a pretty specific caveat. Studios seemed to believe that if these movies were going to land with the mainstream culture, they had to find a way to ground themselves in reality. Cartoonish oddities would only be allowed if they were coated by some form of gritty, down-to-Earth paint job. Whether it be swapping colorful spandex for solid black leather or trading the Batmobile for a speedy tank, the unwritten rule was that comic book movies should not actually feel like comic books. On July 7th, when Thor: Love and Thunder hammers its way into theaters, audiences will learn this is no longer the case.
One of the best sketches to come out of Key & Peele‘s impeccable run was ‘Gremlins 2′ Brainstorm, in which Hollywood’s greatest “sequel doctor” raids the creative meeting for Gremlins 2 and radiantly exaggerates every idea the writers have. “What about a brainy Gremlin?,” one scripter asks. The doctor replies excitedly, “You’re talking about a Gremlin with glasses who can talk and sing ‘New York, New York’? That’s brilliant. It’s in the movie. Done.” This is how I imagine the writers’ room for Love and Thunder played out, but with Taika Waititi at the helm instead. The level of absurdity that the film operates on suggests that the famously eccentric writer/director never encountered an idea that he wasn’t able to use. It’s Ragnarok on steroids, filled to the brim with vibrant hilarity, energetic chaos, and ball-breaking action.
Most importantly, however, it feels like watching a comic book. Marvel Studios has spent the past few years dipping further and further into full-blown funny paper territory, and the fourth Thor may be the project that has finally put the studio over the edge. Fans have known since the release of the film’s early trailers that several shots during its runtime are lifted directly from the illustrated page. Yet, it’s the essence of nonconformity that really sells the schtick. There’s a certain emotional freedom that comes with watching a movie so completely free of expectation. Of course, no direct adaptation can exist without some degree of presupposition, it’s just that Love and Thunder doesn’t care what logic says it’s “supposed” to be. It simply lives as itself, and viewers will be better off surrendering to the magic of the moment than they will be trying to fight it off.
The title, Love and Thunder, has more than one meaning, which will become apparent to fans by the time the credits roll. Taken literally though, the titular nouns represent the two main aspects of the film. “Love,” for the central plot concerning the protagonist’s growing dependence on his own emotions, and “Thunder,” for the absolute exuberance emitted from every scene. The backbone of the movie is composed of “Love,” which is why it works as well as it does. Always present amongst the madness is a central theme connecting it all back to an admittedly endearing sense of humanity. Fantasy is fun, but it can’t work if it isn’t somehow relatable. It’s the “Love” that permits the “Thunder” to continue rolling, and roll it does. Thor, Mighty Thor, and their supporting cast have never been funnier or, simultaneously, cooler than they are here. The action is often creatively jaw-dropping, and the project’s unending well of energy means you probably won’t find a good time to use the bathroom.
Adding to the joy is the movie’s cast, arguably the only ones having a better time than the viewers themselves. Chris Hemsworth, who was once ready to throw in his godly towel, appears to be more comfortable in the role than ever, and Natalie Portman, who really did once walk away from the franchise, no longer seems to be playing Dr. Jane Foster against her will. The actors also suddenly have genuine chemistry with each other, something that was never present in their previous interactions, perhaps as a result of both actually wanting to be there. Tessa Thompson is a predictable delight, portraying a more developed Valkyrie than we’ve seen before. It’s truly a feat when a performer can be in the majority of a movie and still leave the audience wishing she was around for more.
In actuality, though, it’s likely Christian Bale‘s scene-stealing Gorr the God Butcher who deserved more screen time. The villain isn’t in a ton of the film, even if his presence is always looming over the general merriment, and that may be the story’s greatest weakness. Nevertheless, when he is on screen, the Academy Award winner demands to be watched. Bale plays the character with an unexpectedly terrifying glee. His menacing, sickening smile, combined with an intensely threatening aura, makes for one of the more intriguing Marvel Cinematic Universe baddies in recent memory. Gorr’s motives take up the recent trend of superhero antagonists with a tinge of sympathy, but make no mistake, he’s still out for blood. When the God Butcher enters the room, all manner of commotion stands still.
Altogether, Thor: Love and Thunder is the most entertaining a comic book adaptation has been in a while, and it feels like Hemsworth and Marvel Studios are just getting started with this fresh take on the God of Thunder. While this sort of thing has been said about most recent blockbuster releases, this time it could actually be true. It’s a comic book come to life, with all the vibrant colors and out-of-this-world surrealism one might expect from the pages of a Walt Simonson, or more accurately, Jason Aaron monthly magazine. If you don’t believe me, go find out for yourself. I promise it’ll be worth it.